Nathan SwensonWritten by Andy McGlashen, Environmental Science and Policy Program

On a bleak winter day in East Lansing, it's easy to envy Nate Swenson, who in recent years spent nearly half his time in tropical forests.

Swenson, who this year became an assistant professor in the Department of Plant Biology and the Ecology, Evolutionary Biology and Behavior Program, studies "the physiology of species and how it has evolved, to understand why there are so many species in tropical forests, as opposed to temperate forests."

A special concern of his work is the way tropical forests respond to disturbance. At the Luquillo Experimental Forest, a long-term ecological research station in Puerto Rico, Swenson has compared forest response to natural disturbances like hurricanes, and human-caused disturbances like abandoned coffee plantations. "It turns out it makes a big difference," Swenson said; human-disturbed forests are far less able to bounce back.

Such research is useful to forest managers deciding which areas to preserve, and for making predictions about how forest composition and biodiversity will shift as a result of climate change, he added.

Swenson's love of the tropics began while on a semester in India and Malaysia for his biology major from St. Olaf College in Minnesota. He observed the habits of an endangered giant squirrel for a group hoping to protect it, and studied elephant behavior during the rice harvest to minimize conflict between elephants and farmers. "And before that I'd never left the United States," he said.

That work required him to identify plants, which sparked an interest in botany. He went on to earn a master's degree from New Mexico State University for using GIS modeling to map plant and animal hybridization, and a doctorate from the University of Arizona for his work on the ecology of tropical forests.

Now Swenson plans to turn his attention to temperate forests in Michigan, which farming and logging have left ripe for disturbance-related research. "For better or for worse, there's a lot of degraded land here," he said.

Still, he'll use his temperate forest data to draw conclusions about tropical forests, and will continue to spend a couple of months each year in Puerto Rico, Costa Rica and elsewhere, conducting classic field research in some of his favorite places.

"That's why I'm an ecologist," he said. "I like being outside somewhere in the forest."

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